Rollen Fries admits he wasn’t paying attention.
On July 15, 2016 Fries was driving on Highway 14, west of Madison when he struck and killed Cynthia Arsnow. Arsnow rode her bike regularly from her home on Madison’s east side to her job in Cross Plains. Fries admitted at the scene that he had been looking for some paper on the passenger seat at the time he hit the cyclist.
The Dane County District Attorney’s office brought charges against Fries for negligent homicide. Yesterday a journey found Fries not guilty of those charges.
But despite the outcome the Bike Fed is grateful to the D.A. and to Deputy District Attorney Matthew Moeser for sticking with this case. According to press reports, in his closing statement Moeser argued that jurors should only find Fries not guilty if they thought it was okay to drive inattentively.
We don’t know what the jury’s reasoning was, but we hope they didn’t conclude that careless driving resulting in death is acceptable. More likely, the defense was able to get them to relate to Fries more than they could to Arsnow. Most of those jurors probably have had the experience of driving that stretch of highway while it’s unlikely that any of them have been on a bicycle there.
So, this was going to be a tough case to win from the start. But what the D.A. was arguing is very significant. It’s the idea that when you are behind the wheel of a car you have a special responsibility not just to be unimpaired, not just to follow the rules of the road, but also to pay attention to what you’re doing. And that applies not just to looking for some papers, but also looking at your cell phone. As drivers, we are in charge of deadly force and that increases our level of responsibility.
The jury may have decided that Rollen Fries made a mistake any of them could have made. But the very fact that Fries stood trial at all sends a message to the broader public that being distracted is no excuse. You want the privilege of driving a vehicle? You must pay attention.
The Dane County District Attorney’s office did a public service just by pursuing this case and bringing it to trial. They deserve the thanks of all of us who ride a bicycle.